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Kanye West and Kyrie Irving brought the headlines about the Hebrew Israelites. Now two Black scholars bring the backstory.
Our editor-at-large, Robin Washington, talked with two experts: Bruce Haynes, a professor of sociology at the University of California Davis, and author of The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America; and Walter Isaac, a faculty member at the University of Tennessee Knoxville who is a practicing Israelite and was ordained as a universalist rabbi online.
Here are a few highlights from their in-depth Q&A:
What’s wrong with the phrase “Black Hebrew Israelites”?
Haynes: “Black Hebrew Israelite” is a term that conflates many different groups that hold wildly different beliefs and practices. Some adhere to rabbinic practices and some may believe that white-skinned Jews are impostors or say that all Black people are really Jews. Also, not all members are Black. Many are Latinx and some are white.
Why do they call themselves Hebrews instead of Jews?
Haynes: Clearly at some point people started using biblical language to negotiate race. When Black and interracial congregations formed, they used the nomenclature that was prevalent at the time, and that was the term Hebrew.
So why do they believe that Blacks are the original Jews?
Isaac: When African Americans say Black people are the original Jews, the only thing we’re doing is reminding everyone of the dangers of whitewashing history. It’s as if to say to the Western world, “Black lives matter even in Jewish history.”
What do you say to one that is unquestionably antisemitic? Or to someone who denies the Holocaust?
Isaac: I honestly don’t think I would have anything to say to someone so ignorant as to deny the Holocaust, except the following: I am a proud, born-and-raised, lifelong Hebrew Israelite rabbi from a family spanning at least seven generations in North America alone. Some of my extended family survived the Holocaust in Europe. And from their own mouths, they told me that some of my other relatives did not.
Read the full conversation here ➤
Pope Benedict greets the crowd gathered in St. Mark’s Square in 2011 in Venice, Italy. (Getty)
Pope Benedict said he believed in Jewish and Christian co-existence — but it took quite a while: Benedict, whose historic funeral unfolded this morning in Vatican City, joined the Hitler Youth at 14 and when he became pontiff, lionized Pope Pius XII despite the latter’s inaction during the Holocaust. Benedict also reinstated a prayer that contained antisemitic references, though eventually removed the offending parts. His views on Judaism evolved and, in a 2011 book, he wrote that Judaism and Christianity should be seen as complementary faiths and energy should not be expended trying to convert Jews. Read the story ➤
Related: Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland, had more than a dozen encounters with Pope Benedict. “He always reiterated his commitment to continuing the path of his predecessor in advancing Catholic-Jewish relations,” Rosen writes in a new essay, “and he highlighted the unique relationship between Christianity and Judaism.”
A parody on social media: “George Santos receives a dollar from the Lubavitcher Rebbe – with whom he shared a close relationship with as a young boy.” (Twitter)
George Santos, now starring in ‘Fibber on the Roof’ – and other hilarious memes: Adam Sandler’s classic Hanukkah song has been rewritten to include a new lyric: “George Santos, not a Jew.” Twitter users have also posted a whole series of photos of famous events suggesting Santos was there, including the flag-planting at Iwo Jima and the lone protester standing in front of tanks at Tiananmen Square. And of course there’s the mock movie poster starring Santos as Tevye. First came the news articles about the New York congressman-elect who made up most of his biography, including a fake Holocaust heritage, now come the parodies. See the memes ➤
Are Barbra Streisand and Bob Dylan the best Jewish singers? Rolling Stone magazine kicked off the new year with a list of “The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.” Lists like these are meant to provoke readers in countless ways: Is Mariah Carey really a better singer than Ray Charles? A minyan of Jews made the list, which led Seth Rogovoy, our music critic, to wonder about those who were left off: Art Garfunkel, Neil Diamond, Carly Simon and Carole King, to name a few. Read the story ➤
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WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY
An anti-Israel extremist attacked police near Times Square on New Year’s Eve. (Getty)
👮 A 19-year-old man who attacked three New York police officers with a knife on New Year’s Eve told authorities he had come to the city “in order to kill people and carry out jihad,” prosecutors said on Wednesday. Trevor Bickford, who converted to Islam in the past year-and-a-half, also said all government officials were legitimate targets “because the United States government supports Israel,” the authorities said. (New York Times)
🇵🇸 Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 16-year-old Palestinian during an overnight arrest raid in a West Bank refugee camp, the Palestinian Health Ministry reported. This followed the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old Palestinian by Israeli forces during a Tuesday clash as they prepared to destroy a Palestinian home near Bethlehem. The Israeli human rights group B’tselem documented 144 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank in 2022, more than any year in the last 18; the IDF, meanwhile, counted 130 incidents where Palestinians shot at soldiers as they entered Palestinian communities, more than five times the 25 such incidents in 2021. (Haaretz)
😲 A Florida golf course was vandalized with racist and antisemitic messages, including a swastika and Star of David with a line through it …. Separately, a family in Stoneham, Massachusetts, found on their front lawn five swastikas made out of purple construction paper. “The anxiety just reached over me,” said the mom. (CBS 12, Washington Post)
🪦 Two men wearing tzitzit and yarmulkes were captured on camera vandalizing dozens of Christian graves in Jerusalem’s historic Old City. The incident came days after the swearing-in of a new right-wing government whose critics say it could embolden Jewish extremists. (JTA)
🇴🇲 Oman was once expected to join Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in signing onto the Abraham Accords establishing relations with Israel. But the country’s parliament voted last week to criminalize any interactions with “the Zionist entity.” One expert said that the move is meant to appease Iran, and that unofficial relations between Israel and Oman will carry on behind the scenes. (JTA)
🎞️ Sony announced that Daisy Edgar-Jones will star in its big-screen adaptation of Beautiful, a Broadway show about the life and music of Carole King. Some fans are complaining that the lead role didn’t go to a Jewish actress. (Kveller)
🌊 A biblical theme park in Northern Kentucky featuring a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark is expanding, with plans to create a Tower of Babel ride and the largest indoor model of a Christ-era Jerusalem. The park, at 800 acres, is bigger than Disneyland. (USA Today)
Mazel tov ➤ To Neil Spears, a former JCC leader in Los Angeles, on his new job as head of the Jewish LGBTQ Donor Network.
What else we’re reading ➤ Colorado Jewish groups are stepping in to help migrants arriving in the state … Facing prison in Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are waiting in San Diego to see if the U.S. will protect them … The railway company CSX donated $100,000 to combat antisemitism in northeast Florida.
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The Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, as seen from north of Alcatraz Island. (Wikimedia)
On this day in history (1933): Construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge, based on a design of Joseph Strauss. Strauss, an engineer from a German-Jewish family in Ohio, oversaw the construction of around 400 drawbridges during his career, and was also a poet. His two passions came together in “The Mighty Task is Done,” a poem commemorating the completion of the Golden Gate…
At last the mighty task is done;
Resplendent in the western sun
The bridge looms mountain high,
Its titan piers grip ocean floor,
Its great steel arms link shore with shore,
Its towers pierce the sky.
Last year on this day, our colleagues at the JTA reported that a Utah tech entrepreneur resigned after he sent an email accusing Jews of planning “genocide” through COVID and its vaccine.
In honor of National Screenwriters Day, check out our interview with Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans.
The second and final season of Hunters on Amazon Prime picks up two years after Season 1’s stunning twist. (Sorry, no spoilers here.) As you’ll see in the trailer above, Al Pacino returns and Jennifer Jason Leigh joins the cast to hunt down an elderly Hitler in Argentina. Will this Nazi-hunting crew deliver the ultimate wish fulfillment? Tune in Jan. 13 to find out.
Thanks to PJ Grisar and Talya Zax for contributing to today’s newsletter.
You can reach the “Forwarding” team at [email protected].